The Curious Case of John Kass

So, at long last, the hostility has died down. People are taking the time to read Sweetness, and the reviews have, thus far, been 100 percent positive.

Through all the craziness of the past few weeks, I took a lot of hits from many Chicago-based writers who, of course, had never actually read the book. I found it curous and, at times, upsetting. But, also, not all that surprising. When it comes to sports heroes, there’s a sense of ownership that belongs not only to the fans, but to the media as well. I’ve always remembered a moment from my first book, The Bad Guys Won, back in the early 2000s. I was sitting at a table in spring training, behind a handful of New York newspaper writers. Without knowing I was nearby, one said, “Why is Jeff Pearlman writing a book about the ’86 Mets. You’re the one [another writer at the table] who should be doing this, not him.”

I sort of get that same sense from many (certainly not all) in the Windy City media: Walter Payton is our hero. Who is this guy to write about him?

In particular, I was entertained by a column written by one John Kass, a man I’d never heard of but, apparently, one of the Tribune‘s columnists. In a piece from a few weeks back titled WALTER PAYTON DIDN’T DESERVE THIS, Kass—in response to an editorial I’d written for the Trib, wrote, “I think that’s just about the most awful writing I’ve ever seen outside a 12-step Rod McKuen program. If I ever write like that, you have my permission to approach me quietly from behind and club me in the back of the head with a blunt object, repeatedly, until I lie quite still. That way my editor can get in a few thwacks too.”

On the one hand, Kass’ point was sorta fair. My lede was, well, overdone:

The journey to find Walter Payton begins here.

On a couch.

By a pond.

In the dark.

But, as is often the case with guys like John Kass, he couldn’t step away. He went on and on and on and on about a book that (oddly, he failed to mention) he hadn’t read. And, I’m guessing, still hasn’t read. Because that would take work. And time. And, generally speaking, John Kass types don’t put in the intellectual work. Or the intellectual time. They write on emotion. On instinct. They’re raw and tough and rugged, and if you dare disagree, well, don’t disagree. Because they’re raw and tough and rugged. Mean streets of Chicago. Watch out. Roar.

I digress. The reason I love John Kass—and the reason his piece went from irking me to bringing me great joy—is because he didn’t know when to stop. Instead of wrapping things up, he concluded his column with a line that’s so f-ing awful, it makes my lede (which, again, sorta sucked) smell like Hemingway. Wrote Kass: “There are always debates about who was the greatest. But on a football field, there’s only one. It was Walter. And if anyone says otherwise, they’re either stupid or a liar.”

On the football field, there’s only one?

Stupid or a liar?

Did this Biff watch Jim Brown? Eric Dickerson? Barry Sanders? Jerry Rice? Johnny Unitas? Joe Montana? Lawrence Taylor? Emmitt Smith? Tom Brady? Dan Marino? John Elway?

It’s not that he’s necessarily wrong—perhaps Payton is the greatest of all time. But, without being stupid, the argument can certainly be made (and is made, by most people) that Walter Payton isn’t the all-time greatest NFL player. Hell, that he isn’t in the Top 5.

The thing is, columnists like Kass are paid to evoke. Anger. Tears. Joy. Frustration. They thrive off of a certain image and reputation—the tough, rugged Chicago guy taking on all comers. You dare write about Walter Payton’s struggles? I’ll show you!

What guys like Kass understand, however, is that they are actually lost. This is a man who has worked as a Chicago journalist for all of his adult life. He is paid to know the city; to grasp the place; to take its pulse. He should appreciate—not mock—a biographer’s efforts to understand an icon like Walter Payton. He should applaud the determination; admire the reporting. Isn’t that what journalists—and especially columnists—are supposed to do? Or can they only report when it’s people deemed worthy of reporting on? Is there a limit?

In Chicago, a man like John Kass can rip a book he hasn’t read; mock a story he failed to report … because he’s tough. Because he’s intense. Because he’s a Chicago guy with a Chicago chip watching out for a Chicago icon (who, cough, he was supposed to be covering).

Even if he writes like shit.

PS: The last line is a joke. Kass actually is an excellent writer. Never heard of him until the piece on me. Read some of his stuff—really good. But if I ever … ah, never mind.